Journalist's eco-friendly path is a tricky one

October 27, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

As if the media bashers need any more ammunition.

Conservatives accuse us of liberal bias, bloggers sneer at our mainstreamedness and now, according to a story in The New York Times this week, we're a major contributor to global warming.

No, it's not the hot air that columnists emit. (Well, there might be a tiny hole in the ozone layer over my desk.) It's the paper we're printed on. Apparently the process of turning trees into paper - and then into The Sun, Vanity Fair and those L.L. Bean Christmas catalogs that started showing up when it was still 90 degrees out - sends more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all but three other manufacturing industries. (Scientists blame increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases for global warming.)

So let me see if I have this right: All those stories that have been printed in The Sun and elsewhere about global warming were actually contributing to global warming. It's like we're in this journalistic Mobius strip in which we contribute to global warming, then we write about it, thus producing more global warming, prompting us to write even more about it.

Great, something else to feel bad about, as if Nora Ephron's neck, the subject of an entire book about feeling bad, wasn't enough. And I had just started feeling good about how by one calculation, I'm much closer than the average American to becoming carbon neutral.

You've heard of carbon neutrality, haven't you? It's an increasingly popular buzzword that refers to a sort of environmental grace, in which you offset the amount of carbon dioxide that you personally emit into the atmosphere by planting trees or supporting clean and renewal energy sources or otherwise reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

There are any number of online calculators to help you estimate your carbon output, based on factors like how much you electricity or heating oil you use and whether you drive a Honda or a Hummer. Then, the calculators usually direct you to other Web sites that will help you balance your carbon karma, usually by contributing to a group or company that builds wind farms or donates solar panels or otherwise helps reduce global warming.

It's become terribly chic, more-environmental-than thou, to be carbon neutral. Entire college campuses and even companies have pledged to become carbon neutral. The movie Syriana and the Dave Matthews Band are among those who have offset the carbon dioxide their production and touring, respectively, emitted into the atmosphere, by contributing to renewable energy projects.

"There's a certain trendiness associated with it," says Paul McFedries, an amateur lexicographer who included carbon neutral on Word Spy, his online collection of new vocabulary and phrases that are percolating into more mainstream usage.

He attributes carbon neutral's rise - its "tipping point," to use another phrase that's entered the lexicon in recent years - to Al Gore's global warming movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which led viewers to a Web site that showed how they could reduce and offset their greenhouse gas output. Now everyone's jumping the bandwagon - the online magazine Slate just started a "green challenge" to get readers to collectively reduce their carbon output by 20 percent over the next eight weeks (more than 15,000 people have already signed up), and even media magnate Rupert Murdoch has vowed to make his News Corporation carbon neutral.

I tried the Inconvenient Truth carbon calculator, and was feeling quite smug about how I apparently emit less carbon dioxide than the average American. Well, not too smug: I used electricity and gas usage stats from my latest BGE bill, which was from a month in which I probably used neither the air conditioning nor the heat so I came off as less energy-dependent than I actually am. But, on the other hand, my very tiny fuel-efficient car wasn't listed as an option to plug in, so I had to go with a larger and perhaps more gas-guzzling model. But then, on the third hand, the calculator didn't account for my complicity in the evil paper industry.

As you can see, it's a very complicated calculus (although it's surprisingly simple to reduce your emissions, from changing your light bulbs to properly inflating your tires). It reminds me of when I was in Catholic elementary school and we used to have to go to confession once a week. I was such a boring child that I sometimes had to make up sins, just to give the priest something to absolve. But then lying, of course, is an actual sin, so I would then have to calculate: Are the five Hail Marys I was given for the made-up sins enough of a penance for the actual sin? Or should I say 10 Hail Marys just to be safe?

There's probably an online calculator for that.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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